For a guy who is likely in the top two percent of nice guys on the planet, Bill Stewart can’t get a break. As the head football coach at West Virginia University Stewart has won nine games in each of his first two seasons at the school. That is the best start ever by a head football coach at the school, but even with those two successful seasons in his hip pocket, the coach remains a target of a divided fan base.
As has been mentioned here in the past, virtually no one will say anything bad about Bill Stewart the man, but when the topic of Bill Stewart the football coach comes up, look out! Bill Stewart the football coach is a lightning rod for varying opinions. I have no numbers to support any of this conjecture, but I have been listening and watching for a while, so this is how I have the debate handicapped.
Of those who are willing to speak up, Stewart has the majority of fans in his corner and they are adamant that he is the right man for the job. Stewart’s opponents aren’t so vocal, and with good reason. To question the man’s ability to lead a Division 1 football program in the wake of two nine win seasons gives the detractors a shaky foundation to begin with.
Add to that the almost indisputable fact that Stewart is a very positive influence in the lives of young men, and you can see why his detractors are more of a silent minority.
Still, the concerns have merit to many fans. Detractors will ask how many games has WVU won under Stewart that were considered to be a big upset? Well, there was the Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma that essentially got him the job. The Pitt win last season was an upset, but not of major proportions. Then they will point out West Virginia no longer has to compete with Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College to get nine wins. They point to programs like Cincinnati that have passed us by, and that a program like South Florida, in its relative infancy as a Division 1 football program, can make a legitimate claim to the same.
Not to be overlooked here is the fact that until recently a college football team played 11 regular season games. With a bowl game a nine-win team would be 9-3. Now there is a 12 game regular season so a nine-win team is 9-4. West Virginia has chosen to schedule a 1AA team annually to fill the 12th game. So, does nine wins mean what it used to? Seems it would be hard to make that case.
Fence sitters abound in this debate. Many of those who are vocal in their concerns want to be proven wrong. It is hard to imagine that any WVU fans want Stewart to fail, but they exist, believe it, or not. There are far more whom just think he will ultimately fail. Of course failure means different things to different people.
This Stewart conversation has been going on since he was hired in the wee hours of the morning following the 2008 Fiesta Bowl win. The rub was it was an emotional hire done in the drunken euphoria of celebrating the victory. Like it or not, Stewart’s first two seasons probably bought him the length of his six year contract.
Then came last Thursday when the NCAA notified WVU President, James Clements, of allegations of major rules violations within the football program from 2005 through the fall semester of 2009. There are five allegations that, if accurate, could be considered major violations by the NCAA. All the allegations deal with the use of grad assistants and other staff within the program for coaching duties. From what I can piece together, some assistants with job descriptions consisting of things other than on field coaching duties were alleged to be on the field coaching, in effect giving WVU more coaches than allowed by the NCAA.
The timeline clearly puts former coach Richard Rodriguez at the root of the allegations. These allegations closely mirror those that have already been made at Michigan, Rodriguez’s new place of employment. Because Rodriguez came under NCAA scrutiny at Michigan, most WVU fans figured the NCAA would show up at WVU to check the former coach’s history.
Even so, there was a certain level of comfort because logic would suggest the NCAA wouldn’t deal with any violations that occurred while Rodriguez was here too harshly. Then the notice of allegations arrived and, low and behold, Bill Stewart was named for “lacking institutional control.”
According to the allegations, Stewart continued the routine of improperly using grad assistants as on field coaches. Remember, these are only allegations and West Virginia, with their brand new athletic director, Oliver Luck, will have the opportunity to respond to them.
Luck, on Thursday, said steps had already been taken to correct the issue. For starters, the number of graduate assistants has been greatly reduced. One Charleston media type has suggested that Stewart simply did not know he was in violation of NCAA policy. In other words, he was an unwilling violator. That seems believable to me, but begs the obvious question of why did he not know?
If the allegations against Stewart are supported, and if Stewart ends up being held accountable for his role in this matter, it would seem a possibility the coach would not be off to a good start with his new boss. West Virginia has 90 days to respond to the NCAA, but if they can do so in 76 days the matter could be taken up in the NCAA’s November meeting rather than February.
Sanctions could range from probation to loss of scholarships and being banned from bowl games. If you are asking how nervous a WVU fan should be, don’t look here. Since Thursday I have gone from thinking it will amount to little more than a slap on the wrist to legitimate concerns. Albeit, a concern based on conversations with a couple Chicken Little types who only have limited insight.